What to do in August

Every year since I began this garden, my daily weather-and-garden notes have an entry around August 20 that says “Garden looks like Hell.” That includes this summer, which has been quite cool — perfect, actually, with highs consistently in the low 20s (C, not F). But there has been no rain for the last 31 days, and it shows.

Coming home from work and looking at the garden is a disheartening experience these days. Often, my first impulse is to go inside, close the door and ignore the mess outside. Often I give into that impulse, but eventually (on weekends) I get to the point of Something Must Be Done.

So what can be done to improve the garden in August, if escape is impossible?

It comes down to two things: removal and definition. First, get rid of the stuff that offends the eye. Then clean up the edges. After that, it may be worthwhile to do some watering.

Start by deadheading and cutting down withered stems. Especially cut back anything that has zillions of seeds ripening, such as good old toadflax (Linaria purpurea), campion (Lychnis coronaria) and mullein (Verbascum). A bonus of doing this is that these plants sometimes rebloom in early fall, after the first rains. In the meantime, their old, seedy remains are no longer giving that tired, unkempt look to the scene. Get rid of anything that looks dead (or is dead). Colour is a clue — brown, khaki and white are often indications of deadness.

Some raking is also in order. Raking? In summer? Most definitely. I get the rake out regularly, at all times of the gardening season. In this windy climate, there is always stuff to be raked up. In late summer, along with the usual blow-downs and blow-ins there are plenty of tired green leaves and prematurely brown ones, as trees thin their leaf burdens in response to drought. Once on the ground, these leaves are certainly no asset to the garden. Removing them instantly improves the look of the place.

Once the scurf has been removed, clarify the edges of the beds and borders by clipping the verges of the lawns; or even edge them, if that hasn’t been done for a while and it’s hard to distinguish beds from lawn. I guarantee that this will make any garden look 100% better, without doing anything else. The whole process is the garden equivalent of a bath, shave and haircut — it doesn’t change the fundamentals but improves the presentation.

Clipped and raked, not too bad for late August

Finally, embrace the season. Maximum growth and flowering has been achieved by many plants, and they are simply past their best. As a reminder of this, all I need to do is visit a nearby park that preserves a remnant of the natural flora of the place in which I garden. At this time of year, it’s a vista of faded greens, browns and bleached white. In contrast to the springtime display of wildflowers and the lush grass of early summer, there isn’t much going on. The place is waiting for rain, for fall and the turn of the year.